This week, the Office of Servicemember Affairs held a special event: a Financial Fitness Forum. We invited representatives from the military, government agencies, and financial institutions to come and talk about the financial challenges faced by servicemembers and their families, and what is being done – and could be done – to address them. Our particular focus for this event was on the products and services offered to the military by financial institutions.
Hosting this Forum ties directly into our mission to educate and empower servicemembers and their families to make better-informed decisions regarding consumer financial products and services. If we are going to complete that mission, it helps to know what those financial products and services are! There are a number of financial institutions that have been offering unique products for their military customers for quite some time, and we were interested in learning about those. There are other financial institutions that have rolled out special military programs in the past year, in some cases in response to revelations about problems in their compliance with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, and we were interested in hearing about those, too.
Our starting point for this event was to ask the financial services industry for input on what they were doing for their military customers. We put a notice in the Federal Register back in September asking for input on military-centric consumer financial products as well as related financial education programs, short-term lending products, mortgage assistance and communications strategies. 43 credit unions weighed in, as well as 8 banks and 2 non-bank financial institutions. We also heard from other organizations and individuals with an interest in the topic, to include consumer advocates and Judge Advocate Generals.
Based on that response, as well as what we’ve heard and observed on our visits to military bases across the United States, we set up five panels. The first one, fittingly, represented our customer base and consisted of senior enlisted members from each branch of military service: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, as well as a representative from the National Guard Bureau. They provided invaluable insights into the mindset of today’s military, as well as how to best reach young servicemembers and their families.
Other panels consisted of senior representatives from banking and credit union trade associations, as well as some representatives from individual financial institutions that serve a large military customer base and have provided special products for them. We heard some innovative ideas, as well as a discussion of some of the challenges banks and credit unions face when trying to give the best possible support to their military customers.
Given the impact of the housing downturn on military families, many of whom are underwater on their mortgages and, as a result, face severe financial difficulties when they receive military Permanent Change of Station orders, we also had a panel to take a look at ways to make it easier for servicemembers to access mortgage help, given their unique circumstances and the fact that a military move can tip them into a genuine hardship. That panel had representatives from Treasury, FHFA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Financial Services Roundtable. They cited some recent steps they have taken to make it easier for military personnel to access foreclosure prevention programs, and asked for help from the Department of Defense in identifying military customers so they can direct information to them.
It was our hope that the Forum would be helpful not only to inform servicemembers about special military products in the financial industry, but also to inform the financial institutions in attendance about the unique needs of the military community, and to inspire them to find new ways to serve that community. I think we heard some creative ideas about what can be done to support the military while still fulfilling a fiduciary duty to investors and staying in the black. And we’d like to thank everyone who attended for sharing their expertise and showing their support of our military personnel and their families, who serve and sacrifice on behalf of all of us.